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A toy severed hand, plastic skull, and the “Transformation Cocktail” in a glass with a cherry and lemon wedge garnish.

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Pick Your Poison

At NYC’s super-kitschy Jekyll & Hyde Club, a specific kind of escapism manifests in poison-themed cocktails and animatronic decor

The “Transformation Cocktail” sets up a big promise. It is an incantation of sorts, a spell that suggests that by the time you slurp the last dregs through your straw, you will have been transformed. Into what? Who knows, but the not-knowing is part of the thrill. What the Transformation Cocktail actually delivers is an over-the-top ’70s concoction of strawberry and orange juices, blackberry brandy, and rum, whipped and frozen and served in a signature ceramic glass featuring the restaurant’s logo. It’s delicious, but it’s not transformative. No cocktail with that name could ever live up to the hype. But at Jekyll & Hyde, that’s sort of the joy.

New York’s Jekyll & Hyde Club is a spooky, interactive dining experience that was once a rite of passage for middle school birthdays, where kids ordered plates of sliders and fish and chips and shrieked at the paintings with moving eyes. At its opening in 1991, it boasted a cast of Equity actors, decor that looked like Charles Entertainment Cheese went through a goth phase, and state-of-the-art animatronics designed to give you a new creepy show “every 10 minutes,” whether that’s a singing Egyptian-esque statue or an actor beckoning you to watch the resurrection of Frankenstein’s monster.

The club, which used to have multiple locations around the country (the last of which seemed to close sometime before 2011), now boasts one restaurant in the West Village that’s a bit of a shell of what it once was. It is a little worn and a little stilted, the effects not benefiting from much of a 21st-century upgrade (except for a zombie behind the bar who makes jokes about MySpace). But on a recent rainy Wednesday, I found more adults than kids there, turning out to order creepy, poison-inspired cocktails.

An old portrait looks over a dining table.
A dummy sits inside a steampunk-inspired cage.

The Transformation Cocktail, as well as the Death by Poison, Sweet Poison, Kiss of Death, and other macabre-ish drinks on the menu, is the kind of drink that feels like an occasion, and that seems pointedly ridiculous to order during a weekday happy hour. The sweet, colorful concoctions don’t come off as particularly poisonous, but sitting in a dark room filled with leftover haze from a smoke machine, having your conversation interrupted by an animatronic mad scientist peeping out of a wall, you might become slightly more aware of what your cocktail is doing to you. Lit by the red eyes of a robotic corpse, your glass of rum and pineapple juice begins to seem like a magical potion that lets you have some fun with the idea of death. Which can certainly be a transformative experience.

Jekyll & Hyde has found longevity through a kitschy version of the macabre. Alex Marcus, 30, counts himself as a dedicated fan; he first went for a childhood birthday, and has returned dozens of times over his life. Marcus says aside from nostalgia and comfort, part of it is how the brand commits to the bit, no matter how not-scary it actually is. “Watching a single, tiny mouthpiece clacking on a huge animatronic animal is kind of funny, because of how shitty it is,” he says. “Seeing the jug of fog fluid is kind of funny. The juxtaposition of an intensely committed actor shrieking ‘IT’S ALIVE’ at a barely twitching animatronic figure is, too.”

When I visited, the actor roaming the aisles as a mad scientist’s assistant did so with the intensity and commitment of someone debuting their Hamlet. He shrieked and shoved puppets in people’s faces and never once alluded to this all being an act, a captivating level of engagement for normie adults who just want to dabble in the dark. No one broke the spell, which made believing that my Death by Poison cocktail could actually be a dangerous potion even easier. And weirdly fun.

The dining room at Jekyll & Hyde, decorated with pumpkins and cornstalks.

Jekyll & Hyde is not the only business playing with the idea that it’s fun to drink “poison,” or that alcohol is bettered by allusions to the macabre. At the Cauldron in New York City, you can mix your own creepy cocktails in an actual cauldron, utilizing molecular gastronomy techniques to make them bubble and smoke, all while pretending you’re a student of witchcraft in a potions class (complete with on-loan wands and capes). There are haunted pub crawls across the country, if you want to pair your beer with a visit from a ghost. And cocktails have long played with eerie names, with the Corpse Reviver, the Last Word, and the Snakebite all whiffing of danger.

On some level, we all know that when enjoying an alcoholic beverage, the poison is sort of the point. Getting tipsy is a result of your body absorbing ethanol, which depresses your nervous system, affecting you in ways that in moderation are fun and in excess are deadly. Because of that, we tend to sanitize the experience, hiding it behind the veneer of good taste and notes of vanilla. What Jekyll & Hyde Club, the Cauldron, and other experiences do is remind us of the chemical reaction of drunkenness, both the dark reality and the magic — and allows us to flaunt the knowledge that yes, we are poisoning ourselves a little bit. The effect of a good cocktail is the creation of something bigger than the whole: a cocktail swirls together until you generally can’t suss out individual flavors. It’s a mystery, and in the right setting, under cobwebs and crumbling decor, it can make you feel like you’re living a scene from a gothic novel, the brave protagonist asked to sample a secret potion at their own risk.

It works so well because both going to a place like Jekyll & Hyde and drinking one of its cocktails involves a bit of failure. Unlike an escape room or a murder mystery, there’s nothing about Jekyll & Hyde that’s actually scary once you’re older than 12 (I would know: I am an utter baby when it comes to scary experiences). You know you’re not actually watching a zombie come to life. The point was never to convince you that the show you are witnessing is real, or that your life is in any danger. It was just to get you in a bit of a spookier mood, to let loose; the cocktails aren’t designed to make you think you you’re swallowing poison. Instead, the experience suggests that if you’re going to drink, then acknowledge what the “poisonous” alcohol does to you, laugh at its effects, and let it feel supernatural for a second.

Jekyll & Hyde may appear to be a kitschy, G-rated haunted house, but its longevity, and the popularity of experiences like it, comes from how it taps into our desire for that transformative experience. Under the glimmering veil of a strong drink, those zombies start to look a little more real. The actors seem a little more believable. And with the taste of blackberry rum on your tongue, you’re more willing to see where the transformation takes you.

A dummy of Frankenstein’s monster posed with its arms outstretched.

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